Mindfulness: making better leaders

Recent progress in management practice is often likened to being an efficient machine: systematically processing problems and a dash to become the most efficient and effective we can be. The recent studies into mindfulness might lead us to challenge this paradigm. The answer being not to focus on becoming a ‘lean and mean’ education machine but in fact relying on us becoming more human.  As leaders there is a vital role for values, and that means being in touch with our emotional states, finding space to reflect and engage with the moment therefore acting with mindfulness rather than automation.

You don’t have to be wearing saffron robes and sitting on a mountain to utilise mindfulness in daily life. There are clear advantages for leaders to incorporate the concept of “being present” into their leadership practice. The purpose of this practice can be seen to support explicitly and implicitly the improvement in effectiveness of communication between colleagues and therefore the quality of working relationships. Increasing the efficacy of decision making by developing improved focus and clarity. Reducing the levels of anxiety and immediacy of emotional response to challenging situations that we can regularly find ourselves in within college leadership.

A beeping distraction

At my college we have a manager that regardless of activity responds like a Pavlovian dog to a dinner bell every time her mobile phone beeps and another senior manager that has one crisis in front of them and another waiting at the door. This is far from unusual. The call of technology and 24/7 communication or the firefighting mentality prevalent in further education can be witnessed in every college campus. How many times have you made decisions whilst carrying in the emotion from a previous meeting? Would your team describe you as distracted or attentive leader? Is your day set up to support you doing one thing at a time or do you allow constant distraction. But what effect on good decision making does this have and how might being more ‘present’ help?

If time is one of our most precious gifts we can give as human beings, it certainly is as a leader. If we gift our time to others, we owe it to ourselves and our teams to be present for those moments.

As Sylvia Boorstein, a great mindfulness teacher said: “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without clinging to it or rejecting it.” To solve a leadership problem you need skills and knowledge but also there is a requirement to be ‘in the moment’ so that a situation has your full attention and you can use timing and awareness. In doing this there is a ‘best chance’ of selecting the ‘best possible’ situation available.

Sitting with context

Every situation, of course, exists not in a vacuum but in a context. It is unwise to attempt to separate ourselves from the context and our constant interactions. It’s helpful to think of this as the same as someone flying a kite. There is interaction between the flier and the kite but also the kite acts interdependently with the wind and on occasion the earth! As leaders we might turn to a more ‘gestalt’ approach. Our leadership practice is made up of many constituent elements that are integrated and unified in a way more complex than the summation of the parts. Sports people often talk about being ‘in the moment’ or a sense of ‘flow’. What is going on is more than just automatic response based on habit. It is an ability to work in the immediate series of ‘now’ moments, fully embedded in ‘real time data’ and being present with immediate emotions and thoughts.

If constant communication and constant change is the new normal in work then we as leaders need to understand that we are within a system and inter alia influencing the system. Acknowledging this relational nature means that being present within our own leadership ’eco-system' is essential if we are to avoid poor decision making.

In a ‘time poor’ college the higher the levels of self-awareness we can manifest in daily practice, the better we will decide between competing options. We can shift our focus and energy to where it is needed most. Everything today presents as a priority; without pausing to reflect we can easily be taken away by the wind, and the kite goes into an unstoppable tail spin.

The multi-task myth

I used to claim ‘to be good at multi-tasking’. Evidence shows that this is stressful, tiring and unproductive. In other words – I was massively wrong.

Do you ever read something and then can’t seem to remember any of it? Have you been in a meeting and realised that you’ve begun thinking of something else? Do you switch quickly between tasks or allow interruption? Human beings cannot multi-task. We are though capable of handling several tasks in succession. If we accept we can only do one thing at a time then it follows we should do that thing wholeheartedly.

It’s all in our heads

When we ‘live in our heads’ we tend to drift to the past, reliving issues and decisions that have already passed and can’t be changed. Alternatively we anticipate the future. This involves second guessing a series of as yet unwritten future possibilities, sometimes outside our control. Of course we need to plan as leaders but constant living in either the past or future allows us to more than likely mess up the present! We can all too easily ’live in our heads’. The more overloaded we are or when experiencing high emotional states we will often revert back to our heads and forget the present moment.

In the daily workplace we witness a range of emotion both good and bad. We see anger, envy, worry and doubt. We see our colleagues hanging onto these emotions long after the moment has passed. They may have been real to us at the time but sometimes they begin to get in the way of the present feelings and present moment – and therefore, present decisions.

There is an old Zen saying ‘before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.’ There have been thousands of words written about this quote but for me it comes to two simple learning points: The carrying and chopping are independent actions that cannot happen at the same time and nor should we try. Secondly, regardless of what we think about chopping or carrying, that is to say whatever emotional state we bring to the activity, the task will remain the same.

Flowing in the right direction

Mindfulness can currently be seen as a trendy concept and has even been dubbed ‘McMindfulness’.  It can be found on every magazine cover. However, it can also be seen as an ancient wisdom for a modern world and certainly helpful in educational settings.  Definitions vary but broadly it is a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment. This is a simple concept but incredibly difficult to achieve and sustain.

The intrinsic nature of the mind is to dwell on the past or worry about the future. Both of these help us to learn and prepare. This is essential for stepping away to allow creativity, and innovation. Mindfulness allows us to quieten the mind and watch ourselves from the outside in. Being mindful helps counter the cognitive dissonance that comes from the living in the last or constant future. Simply, being in the present not only makes us think more clearly but it actually makes us happier.

Acceptance is the key

For many, especially in educational leadership, the idea of simple acceptance is heresy. I don’t suggest ducking the hard decisions, or being detached or giving up on difficult to solve problems. In mindfulness embracing acceptance is actually taking hold and intentionally grasping; seeking to understand what is really going on.

We can begin to see the issue for what it is and liberate it from thought patterns and habits that can easily distort and distract. Acceptance can provide a rare clarity without things getting in the way. Our quest as leaders surely must be to respond to real problems with as much skilfulness as we can muster? Accepting the reality provides the best starting point for discussion and decision.

In mindfulness we do not have to try to switch off our minds but the opposite. The more fully aware then the more skilful we become in working in the space between stimulus and response. Victor Frankl said; “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies growth and our freedom” The more we can practice to operate in this space the more improved our decision making as college leaders. It’s mindfulness over automation that will win the day. 

Developing present practice

So what can we do to help be more present in our leadership?

  1. Take a breath; being more present starts with our breath. A slow breath for a couple of minutes brings you back to the now.
  2. Set an intention to be present; our intentions drive our focus. What are you doing now? By being a witness to what you are doing and deliberately feeling more aware, it will help us become more connected with the present.
  3. Proactively start a mindfulness practice. There are lots of resources to help such as the app ‘Headspace’ or at The Oxford Mindfulness Centre has plenty of free resources. Visit www.oxfordmindfulness.org
  4. Notice the reoccurring negative thought patterns or situations at work where you always worry and counter them by being present with intention.
  5. As a leader begin by shifting your attention to the person in front of you, practice listening intently, don’t just wait for your ‘air time’. Quickly you will find there is a better personal connection and decisions feel quicker and more collegiate.
  6. In team meetings, check in with each of the participants to ensure everyone is engaged, including yourself. Taking time to pause and re-engage will be well spent.

Stuart Rimmer is the Principal and Chief Executive Officer of Great Yarmouth College and runs Inception Coaching, providing leadership development to individuals, groups and companies. 

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